Robert Gray: Work Space
Art Is Work II
In the first issue of SPACES, I wrote of art’s relationship to work in my life, with particular focus on sculptors in the Vermont marble mill towns where I grew up. As the months passed, I kept thinking about them. Marble statuary found me everywhere, like stone ghosts. This spring, I spent some time at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and on several trips to New York City I always found a spare moment to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
As a recovering Catholic, my attraction to monasteries and churches has long intrigued me, but my obsession with the artwork displayed within is less surprising, perhaps. After all, a marble vein runs straight through me.
What I realized, especially walking around New York, was that if you pay attention, your eyes are often drawn to the marble adorning structures that have miraculously resisted being cloaked in steel and glass. It catches you by surprise, the way a flash of wing in branches might startle a birder. Fantastic beasts perch on cornices and ledges. Gothic faces stare down from gates and doorways. Mute saints reach out slender arms to bless or implore from hidden grottos. In an old cemetery, an exquisite angel takes flight above the tomb of some old-money family. In the narrow alleyway of a small churchyard, St. Francis offers marble tidbits to the pigeons. And I’m always aware that any of these creations might trace its origin to the village where I lived as a child.
1. The Soul of Stone
I took the photo shown above this winter, when I had a rare opportunity to explore an essentially abandoned old marble mill in Proctor. Entering this particular storeroom, I froze in place and watched the shot frame itself. The image, even before I snapped it, reminded me of another haunting photograph, “Artisan 1992,” I’d seen years before in Joel Leivick’s book Carrara: The Marble Quarries of Tuscany.
Leivick’s black and white photo captures an old man sitting on a wooden crate in his studio. Religious statues, in various stages of creation, surround him. The floor beneath his dusty shoes looks like a marble sand beach. His fingers–thick workingman’s fingers graced with the ability to bring form to formless stone–are interlocked and casually draped between his thighs, as if in prayer; as if chatting with God rather than worshipping Him; as if he and God have struck a bargain between equals.
To his left is a pair of white Madonnas, gazing beatifically down upon the top of his shiny head, with its close-cropped fringe of white hair. Their loving expressions, so clearly directed at him, make them appear more like adoring daughters. Behind him, smaller religious statues rest on shelves against the back wall. The upper half of a cross litters the floor.
The old man stares into the camera as if challenging the photographer to a fight, as if mocking this tepid attempt to steal his soul, knowing his soul is already locked away safely in the stone he has carved.
The room I saw in Vermont last winter felt like an echo.
2. Imagining Stone
In the marble church where I went to Mass every Sunday as a child, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary, created with precision, care and passion by one of the many Italian sculptors who worked at the mill in a nearby town. The artist’s job was to produce statuary and decorative pieces with almost assembly line precision and speed, but I always believed this particular Madonna had been special because it would reside closer to his home, in his church. The eternal stakes were higher.
I even told myself a story about the unnamed sculptor’s son, who might have been my age, too young really to understand what his father could do with stone. I imagined a Saturday morning, when the child’s mother took him to the mill where his father worked–where practically every man we knew worked then–somewhere in that long line of mismatched factory buildings.
They walked together across the dirt and marble chip yard, through which railroad tracks slashed like scars. His eyes burned from the sun reflecting off sparkling marble chips under their feet and the rows of broad white slabs loaded on pallets.
“Here!” his mother said, stopping suddenly on tracks that disappeared beneath an immense, padlocked sliding door. The chain hung slack and the boy’s mother wedged herself into the narrow gap, strained against the weight of the door until it open slightly, then reached back for her son.
“Look, boy, look!” she whispered once inside. “Your father did that. It’s for our church.”
Bathed in muted sunrays, which filtered through banks of small windows coated in gray dust, was the most beautiful woman the child had ever seen. She held a baby close to her breast, a pudgy infant swaddled in the folds of her robe. The mysterious dark hollows of her eyes studied him. Her smile was gentle and benevolent. She was, he understood at once, God’s own mother brought to life from stone by his father. Although he would leave the church when he was a teenager, that child never stopped believing in miracles.
3. It’s not about the Marble (It Is)
Even when it’s not about Catholicism, it somehow becomes about Catholicism. Even when it’s not about marble, it somehow becomes about marble.
Now and then I make a pilgrimage to the Sterling and Francine Clark Museum in Williamstown, Mass., to visit one of my favorite paintings–John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’ambre gris. More than an old friend, Fumée is a mentor, having once taught me a lesson in perspective when I was at a critical juncture in my life.
Like a pilgrim approaching a shrine, I always enter the room where it hangs slowly, a ritual supplication in the presence of almost unbearable elegance and beauty. The nuns used to tell me that no living human could look straight into the face of God; that it was only conceivable for those who had died in a state of Grace and been called to a personal audience with the Big Guy once they were safely ensconced in Heaven.
I feel that way in the museum. I cannot move toward Fumée directly, only glance at it peripherally. I remain close to the wall and move from painting to painting, my hands clasped behind his back, appearing to examine each one carefully. Because of this approach, I am a little too close when I reach Fumée, but this is all according to plan. I move even closer. Close enough to touch. Close enough to alarm the somnolent museum guards if they should see me. Then I look, raising my eyes as tentatively as any disciple.
Fumée d’ambre gris depicts a North African woman in Tangier during the latter part of the nineteenth century. She stands beneath an arch on the tiled patio of a Moorish house. Centered upon an exotic rug before her is an ornate silver incense burner. The woman wears a cream-colored robe, a portion of which she holds suspended above her head like the roof of a desert tent, infusing the soft folds of her garment with musky scent.
She evokes intense self-possession as she concentrates on the wafting incense, her arms outstretched, though not in an attitude of blessing as in some Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary. She seems angelic, but more complex, radiating sensual as well as spiritual power; an angel who has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge; who has reduced the fires of Hell to cinders and trapped them in the bottle at her feet. The brilliant silver of the incense burner looks hot to the touch, the wall behind her and to her right cool and soothing.
As striking as the woman’s appearance is to most observers, (Henry James wrote that “in her muffled contemplation and her pearl-colored robes, under her plastered arcade, which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful and memorable.”), it is the wall that draws my full attention once again. Because I am standing so close to the canvas, the intricate tricks Sargent played with shades of white on white create a texture that is delicate and complex. The woman might be at the perilous, seductive edge of a void that isn’t dark and foreboding at all, but cool and pale like fog.
White is sacred, white is nothing, the “whiteness of the Whale” in Moby Dick. Ishmael said whiteness wasn’t so much a color as the visible absence of color. At the same time, it was the concrete of all colors. He called it “a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink.”
I do not shrink. I just step back a little, so that gradually, out of that ethereal wall, out of all those spectral brush strokes, a column emerges as if from behind a curtain of stone mist. I study it, silently reminding myself, as if in prayer:
Don’t get too close.
The painting triggers another, inevitable image: the sheer, unscalable palisade of a quarry, with a cluster of marble men standing on the block-strewn floor, some staring at the white wall, others looking up, up, up toward an empty blue sky.